It’s discomforting that marketing departments might be persuading us to do the right thing by appealing to our self-interest, says Mallen Baker

Some people blame marketers for a world of rampant consumerism. Indeed, I have heard many speak with absolute conviction that it is the dark arts of the marketer and nothing else that persuade people to buy a plethora of things they don’t need.

Free will is just an abstract concept, as people are manipulated into craving endless amounts of stuff.  

So what does it look like if you take these dark arts and seek to direct them towards selling sustainability? After all, since people are so resistant to making lasting changes in their lifestyle, perhaps they need to be manipulated into making such changes in spite of themselves.  

Well, now we have the recipe to do it. Unilever has released its Inspiring Sustainable Living document, which introduces its “levers for change”. These describe the approaches that marketing has to offer in helping people to make lasting change in their lives.

They were developed by asking a few questions. What were the barriers that currently stop people from developing a new behaviour? What would be the triggers to get them to adopt this behaviour? How would you motivate them to stick with that behaviour?

And that led to five simple levers: make it understood, make it easy, make it desirable, make it rewarding and make it a habit.

Unilever gives a number of examples of applying these levers in practice. They include such demonstrably good things as getting children in developing countries to wash their hands with soap.

There is some real insight here, and companies seeking to popularise environmentally better products would do well to take note.  

For instance, auto manufacturers are struggling to sell more eco-friendly cars. The messaging is confusing.

Consumers don’t understand the technology or the benefits. Although the Toyota Prius showed for a while that it was possible to make an eco-product desirable, the effect has largely passed. Sales of hybrid vehicles have dipped.

At the same time, I find Unilever’s five levers to be unsatisfying. Those who believe that the marketing mindset is part of the problem will find plenty of ammunition here.

Why? Because traditional marketing has done such a great job of making us all selfish by constantly encouraging us to go with our basest instincts. What’s in it for me? What’s new, sparkly and fashionable? How do I earn the admiration of my peers? Me. Me. Mine.

Altruistic selfishness

So Unilever set an exam question here: how can we utilise the power that made us selfish to manipulate us, through the design of benign marketers, into doing the right thing in pursuit of our latest gratification?

Let’s be clear. The five levers described by Unilever are not inherently tools for sustainability. They are tools for seduction. It’s just that they can be used to promote sustainability, just as they can be used to promote something else.

The levers are designed with the mindset of the marketer. And the problem with the mindset of the marketer is that it only understands people in their role as consumers – not in their existence as citizens.

There is nothing here to encourage identification of the whole with a common purpose, or a social good. Starting from where we are, rather than where we would like to be, that makes a certain amount of sense. But it is not enough.

Through history, we have seen how powerful human society can be when it is under stress. People pull together in the face of an external challenge.

So what if the marketing challenge had not been “make good products sexy and desirable”, but “make citizenship and caring for the common good fashionable”? That isn’t, by the way, some new green socialism.

Systems based on central control are rubbish at creating sustainable solutions. But that’s rather why I distrust solutions that rely on the concept of the benign, powerful marketers manipulating us into making predetermined choices for our own good.

At least if governments legislate to ban certain harmful products, I know where the power is being exercised and who to hold accountable. It’s not intended to be an anti-Unilever comment to note that the company’s marketers have just had advertising for Lynx banned for “degrading and objectifying women”.

Do we trust power in these hands? I’m very happy for the marketers to sell eco-products more effectively. I just don’t believe in a sustainable future that wholly relies on appealing to our inner selfish bastard.

Mallen Baker is founder of Business Respect, and a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation.          


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